Norway in the eyes of a foreigner
After a long period of searching for a PhD scholarship I finally got a great offer from Bergen University College, and in the 2nd half of March I’ve joined the staff of Department of Computer Engineering as a member of DISTECH research group. This means a lot has changed in my life, because apart from changing a job/school I’ve also moved to another country. This country happens to be Norway and I have some thoughts about it I’d like to share.
It’s expensive, but in a peculiar way. Let me explain what I mean. Coming from a relatively poor country that Poland is (at least by European standards) to Belgium last year was difficult, especially when Euro was so strong. But Belgium (and Leuven especially) is not a very expensive place to live. Coming to Bergen I expected to pay 200% of Belgian prices for everything, but it’s not like this. To my surprise, Norwegian prices are only a little higher than Euro zone prices, at least for the most basic products like food or clothes. But mind you: this applies only to the food you buy in a supermarket. Once you want to go out and have a lunch in a restaurant, expect to pay extra. And if you happen to like beer or alcohol in general, expect to pay even more. I’m a beer enthusiast myself and I remember the great choice of fantastic beers in Leuven — you could hardly find one that would cost more than, say, 5 EUR for a bottle. Anything above this price would either be very rare, or served in an expensive bar. In Bergen, you can easily pay 8 EUR for a bottle of beer in a bar, and the prices go up (sometimes much higher). What’s peculiar is that the structure of product prices is different. The food is generally expensive, but clothes, furniture, high-tech (computers, electronics, good bicycles) and home equipment isn’t. I’ve seen more iPhones and people wearing good quality headphones on the bus here in Bergen than in Brussels. So to sum up: an average Norwegian is able to afford a newest smartphone without any problems, but he will think twice before having a dinner in a restaurant.
One other thing about costs of living and money in general that is specific in Norway is that there are no big differences in salaries. For example, a person working as a researcher in my school doesn’t get much more money than a janitor (or at least that’s what my Norwegian friends told me). Still it doesn’t mean that researchers aren’t paid good money; in fact my salary as a PhD student is bigger than that of my colleagues in western Europe. And even though the cost of living here is much higher, I see that a PhD student in Norway is generally able to afford more than a PhD student in Belgium. Sure, the flat structure of wages has its disadvantages, but you hardly see any poor people on the streets here (not a case for Brussels).
Also, one last point about the money: having a salary paid in Norwegian kroner makes every other country cheap. And that’s a big advantage if you’re travelling a lot.
Ok, let’s get to some more important matters: The Nature. To say that Norway is stunningly beautiful is not enough. I’m about a month here so I haven’t seen much, but every time I go anywhere outside Bergen I keep staring at the mountains with my jaw dropped. Heck, I don’t even have to leave Bergen — the mountains are everywhere, I can see them through the windows of my office, I can just walk outside and start climbing them anytime. But when you head northeast it gets even better; we went to Myrkdalen by car last week and I had my face pressed up against the window all the time, with only one thought in my head — how to get a permanent residence permit and how to buy a house here.
Norway seems like a homogeneous society. Perhaps you don’t see it if you’re in Oslo, or if you’re working for some international company, but in my school, where there aren’t too many international students, blending into Norwegian society is a must. What it means in practice is that it’s hardly possible living four years here without learning Norwegian. I know it’s possible not to know a word in Dutch while living in The Netherlands or Belgium, but it would be very hard here. Not because Norwegians don’t speak English, in fact everyone here does it really well, but since there aren’t that many foreigners there’s not much practical information in English — bus company websites, banks, festivals, newspapers, etc. — it’s all in Norwegian. Not a case for Belgium, where most things are presented in four languages (NL/FR/DE/EN).
Oh, by the way, some of my friends asked me if it’s true that Norwegians are generally shy and quiet. I don’t know where this came from, but they’re definitely not shy. And let’s just leave it like this without getting into details.
[updated 18.04] Just one more thing I forgot about yesterday: Norwegians are carnivores. Being a vegetarian here is virtually impossible. I’m not a veggie myself, but I try to eat as little meat as possible. Fish are easy to get of course, and cheap, but I remember ordering a pizza last Friday, and among 20 different pizza types there was only one vegetarian. And not only do Norwegians eat meat, they eat a lot of fat meat. And sheep heads in Voss (literally sheep heads — with eyes and everything). If you’re a vegetarian, either don’t move here or stop being one.
I guess I should also write about my research, but there’s not much to write about yet. I still have a lot to learn, the most important thing is that I can learn things that really interest me, and that I have great support from my promoter and my colleagues.
Stay tuned for more Norway-related posts!